New Orleans It is hard to type the words, Zach is dead. None of us live forever, but somehow, I still thought Zach Polett would be with me until the end, just as he had worked with me in one way or another for over fifty years. His letter asking for a job is reproduced in the movie, The Organizer, in the early days of ACORN. If anything, I would have bet he would be looking after my legacy at the end, rather than me raising the flags for him.
Not that I didn’t know this day was coming. He had asked to speak with me in the spring this year in our Little Rock offices after a KABF board meeting. He told me about his recent diagnosis of esophageal cancer with the usual frankness we shared with each other, saying, “I’m screwed.” When I asked what his plans were next, he replied typically that he “would play the hand he was dealt.” We’d talked throughout the recent months, whenever he was able, but with Zach it was nothing maudlin. We kept doing business, as we always had, and, as if we would do so forever. I knew it was serious when he turned over managing the Little Rock building and asked me to take care of a corporation and its future that dated back to our days. Zach held on to his work with a tight grip, managing scores of pieces, close to the vest, on a get ‘er done, no drama basis, and always ahead of the game.
Zach had been ACORN’s founding organizer in Louisiana in 1976. My old high school friend, Dan Russell, was helping run an organizing drive. He brought his co-worker from the welfare department, Mary Mayeaux, into our makeshift office to help as a volunteer. She had been the valedictorian at Loyola University in New Orleans. We introduced her to Zach. They ended up together forever. I knew his sister, Jo Allison. I knew his parents, and he knew mine. He was both comrade and companero to me.
He had many jobs at ACORN. He had been our head organizer in Florida. I sent him to California to integrate our affiliation and build the operation there. He was head organizer of Arkansas ACORN. Later, he became ACORN’s political director for the rest of his career. He engineered the merger and assumption of Project Vote and oversaw our voter registration campaigns that saw millions gain the right to vote. I tried to move him to New Orleans at different times and to Washington, DC at other times, but he always outlast me and remained in Little Rock and traveled and worked from there.
My last message from Zach said he would be on the Zoom for the board call that Thursday. That day close to noon, I had an email from Doug Phelps, head of the Public Interest Network, where Zach had worked most of the last fifteen years, saying there was bad news and to call. We had been keeping in touch on Zach’s fight. Zach had just returned from a staff meeting in the Colorado mountains with Doug and others and had gone onto DC for another meeting before returning home. He had kept his shoulder to the wheel and fought the peoples’ battles to his last breath. As we say in the west, he was going to die with his boots on, a sentiment we shared.
The board meeting was canceled. I was in Arkansas and joined his oldest son. Mark, and others by his side that evening. I saw him again days later with his youngest son, David, on my way back to New Orleans. It was a death watch. I was lucky to be there. Zach passed away the next evening.
David asked me to share an experience with Zach. I told him there were a million I could tell. There will be a memorial, likely next June, late in the month. We will honor him in many ways. There will be lots more to say.
Now it will be our job to tell his story forever. He was one of the rocks on which we built ACORN, and we will always sing his song.